The Curious Case of Margaret Aurelia Porter and Reuben Reynolds

“In the suit between Porter and myself it can be proved that Kidman, his main evidence, is an idiot and that Stephen Porter offered him a bushel of corn for what he did swear.” –Reuben Reynolds

The case of Margaret Aurelia Porter v. Reuben Reynolds reveals the conflict between free and slave holding states in early 19th century America and how the movement of slave bodies into borders that recognized their emancipation presented a dilemma for owners attempting to execute their return. The litigation involved Margaret Porter, a slave owner, who in 1810 sued Ruben Reynolds for harboring three of her slaves that escaped from the state of Maryland to Pennsylvania. Porter demanded $1,500 in damages for the loss of labor and income that resulted from her missing property. Margaret’s father, Stephen Porter, filed the lawsuit and legally represented her since women could not appear as “persons” before the law during this period.

Subpoena from Margaret Porter  requesting the presence  of Reuben Reynolds, circa 1810

Subpoena from Margaret Porter requesting the presence of Reuben Reynolds, circa 1810.

The records of the case, housed at the Amistad Research Center, originate from the United States Circuit Court (3rd circuit) in Pennsylvania and consist of fourteen handwritten documents dated between 1810 and 1812. There is correspondence, depositions, testimonies and subpoenas of witnesses and other individuals involved in the case. The most interesting material in the records is a letter from Reynolds to his friend William Master in which he discredits one of Porter’s witnesses, a man named Samuel Kidman. Reynolds goes on to assert that the three escaped slaves, Cesar, George, and Emmanuel, all sons of a woman named Betty Hayes, were free because she was emancipated at the time of their births. Kidman claimed in his testimony that Reynolds and his wife hid the boys on their land, provided them with “victuals” and had even threatened him with physical harm if he considered revealing the boy’s concealment.

There is very little documentation about Margaret Porter or her father, Stephen, outside of the court documents on this case. What is clear is that Margaret evoked the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which preceded its more well-known counterpart of 1850 that allowed slave owners the right to recover escaped slaves. What is not clear is if Porter even had the right to summon Reynolds from Pennsylvania to Maryland to address her accusations in court. One of the questions asked by the counsel was, “Has the governor of the state of Maryland a right to demand of the governor of Pennsylvania a delivery of person to be tried in the state of Maryland?” The topic of state’s right becomes a dilemma in this case and would continue to do so during the era of slavery as slaves continued to flee across borders to manumit themselves.

A letter from Reynolds to William Master discussing his case, 1811.

A letter from Reynolds to William Master discussing his case, 1811.

There is also no documentation about Reynolds, Betty, or her three sons beyond the case. What is known is that Reynolds lived in Pennsylvania and that his declaration about the free status Betty and her three sons was unwavering. There is a strong possibility that Reynolds may have assisted Cesar, George and Emanuel considering the indignation he displayed about Stephen Porter and Kidman in his letter to William. Pennsylvania was also a Quaker stronghold and they vehemently opposed slavery.

Testimony from Betty  describing her life as a slave, undated.

Testimony from Betty describing her life as a slave, undated.

Surprisingly, the records do not completely silence Betty for she offers up her own testimony. She was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and was sold four times throughout her life before she found herself the property of Stephen Porter. She lived in Peachbottom, Pennsylvania, where Porter had taken her to live with his brother for a length of time. Porter then took her back to Maryland where she ran away from Porter after several years of bondage. She had two other children, another boy and a girl, besides Cesar, George, and Emanuel. One son was sold by Porter, which may have prompted her runaway and the escape of the last three. Betty had every inclination to believe that her remaining sons were at risk for being sold. Males around the age of 25 were the most valued and her sons were estimated to be 13, 16, and 18 years of age according to court documents. Her two oldest sons were quickly approaching the age where their worth on the market would skyrocket.

Betty, like many other slaves that rebelled against the slavocracy, took the fates of her children into her own hands. If Reynolds did assist Betty then she calculated correctly that he and his wife would be able to protect and guide her sons to freedom. Her daughter was still being held as a slave by Porter when she gave her testimony. Unfortunately, the records do not detail how the case ends, whether Porter was reimbursed or the destinies of Reynolds, Betty, and her three sons and daughter.

Post by Chianta Dorsey

Images from the Margaret Aurelia Porter v. Reuben Reynolds records. May not be reproduced without permission.


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